Neil Barrett: On the crest of a wave

Modern menswear owes a lot to Neil Barrett, who cut his teeth at Gucci and helped found Prada's line. Alexander Fury meets the English designer showing the Italians how it's done
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Patrizio Bertelli is a name that inspires admiration and a frisson of terror in the fashion world. It may not be immediately recognised by the world at large, but to industry insiders, the proud, passionate and legendarily volatile billionaire CEO of Prada is a force to be reckoned with. And feared, sure. So the idea of a designer he'd never met penning a missive to tell him how to run his company is kind of unbelievable. But that's just what designer Neil Barrett did in the early Nineties.

“I proposed the collection to them,” recalls Barrett. “I wrote Bertelli a letter saying, 'If you ever considered doing a men's collection, I think I know what it should look like'.”

Chutzpah pays off: he got an interview – and the gig – established the Prada menswear line and, in the process, altered the course of modern men's fashion. That's a hefty legacy to lay at Barrett's feet, but that's where it should be. It's a fact that's often overlooked, but it certainly illuminated the success of his eponymous label, founded after he left Prada in 1999 and an immediate critical and commercial hit. The latter, of course, is the all-important element: Barrett has legions of fans across the world, both male and female, who share his fetish for stripped-back minimalism, clean tailoring and a wicked way with a techno fabric. They were elements that marked out Prada's early menswear years as so revolutionary, too. And they're Barrett trademarks.

Over the past two years, however, Barrett's collections have hit an all-time high. His purist, pared-down aesthetic and superlative tailoring has been combined with a taste for American sportswear staples like bomber jackets, sweatshirts and T-shirts. But this isn't ordinary sportswear: the bomber jackets come in quilted calfskin, T-shirts in heavy knit lined with Lycra, and the sweatshirts, most memorably for autumn/winter 2013, as Bauhaus-inspired patchworks of ponyskin, bonded jersey and textured wool. Barrett is riding the crest of a wave.

He was born and raised in Devon. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were tailors. “They started at the end of 1892,” he explains. “They chose Plymouth over Portsmouth as it had a greater amount of army, navy, marines and air force – they all had bases. They ended up doing all the officers. When I grew up it was all about military uniforms. Very rigid, very perfect – there was never a crease in sight.”

He goes on: “My grandfather was very, very formal. I never saw [him] without a bow tie. Everything was always precise. I was affected more by that than fashion.”

Despite a youthful dalliance with New Romantic style – “With a big puffy blouse… thinking back, I had the worst fringe, a la Spandau Ballet” – minimalism has marked Barrett's designs from his days at London's Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in the early Eighties. “I was more formed at the Royal College than at Saint Martins. The Royal College beat into you how important it was to create a garment that was sellable.” And sell Barrett has – that urge to create a product that was desirable rather than simple catwalk razzmatazz attracted Gucci, which appointed Barrett as Senior Men's designer right after graduation.

“It was pre-Tom Ford… they had just sacked the whole of the design team – very dramatic, very Alexis Carrington – and they brought in three of us from the Royal College. We were thrown in the deep end.” To say the least.

Maybe one reason Barrett isn't trumpeted by the establishment as a Great British designer – which, with a network of shops in the Far East and a booming business, he undoubtedly is – is his affection for Italy. He has been based there for his entire career, manufacturing and showing his menswear in the Italian fashion capital (his womenswear is presented in Paris). “The beauty of working in Italy is working with the best artisans in the world. I'm inspired by learning techniques, by watching them. I'm inspired by these 70-year-old ladies stitching away! I'd never buy tailoring outside of Italy. I've never seen the quality stand up to time yet. Most other things you can buy abroad. Not tailoring,” he says. Don't tell Barrett's forefathers that.

After Gucci, naturally, came Prada, where Barrett founded a menswear line that continues to stand apart as one of the most influential in the world. “I have the hugest respect for Bertelli and Miuccia – they're the best school in the world. Their work ethic and their design ethic is the highest.”

Despite the fact that technically they are now his competitors, Barrett's voice still rings loud with affection over a decade after he left Prada to found his eponymous label. “Miuccia said there's no reason to leave… unless you're doing your own collection,” he recalls. Despite offers from a number of international menswear houses, Barrett held out until the offer came to start his own label, a rare occurrence in Italian fashion. It made money from the start and Barrett showed his first menswear collection in 2002. Womenswear followed shortly afterwards. The Barrett men's and womenswear lines, however, have always interrelated. His collections for last autumn/winter are the perfect example: the menswear collection translated the oversized volume of a woman's opera-coat into dramatic shapes for men. Think an opera-parka, in moiré-etched camel wool. Then those shapes were worked back into the womenswear. That's very complicated terminology for a collection that amounted to a parade of amazing and eminently covetable outerwear, for him and her.

“I don't try any more,” confesses Barrett quietly. “I don't try and do feminine. There are enough companies doing that.”

This autumn/winter, those Modernist patchworked men's sweatshirts did such swift business, Barrett showed them again for his womenswear, proportions subtly tweaked for a woman's body. Barrett's womenswear ethos is very simple: “A logic, a method that works with men, but specifically tailoring it to look great on a woman.”

Barrett's athleticism stands out in a fussy, prissy, ladylike season – the line has been picked up by Net-a-Porter for winter, for the first time. In a minimal backlash – with more-is-more maximalism, embellished dresses and ostentation on every other catwalk – Barrett seems able to mark himself out by simply being himself. “That world of people who do stuff just for the sake of it… or for a very small clientele who have no true understanding of garments: how they fit, the fabric. I'm not interested in them. I prefer that more intelligent consumer, who understands a beautiful garment.”

The thinking designer's thinking clientele, then. In Barrett's precise, concise and perfectly designed world, even the customer is always right.